Thursday, September 1, 2011

A Larger World-Visual Symbolism Part I

To understand how Star Wars became what it is, we have to understand where it came from. In an era dominated by rundown antiheroes and corrupt politicians, Lucas attempted to create an homage to the 1930s and 40s action serials that were rife with morality and strong central heroes who operated clearly within the precincts of right and wrong. To understand Star Wars is to know first that Star Wars is not a series of films—rather it is a series of films about a series of films. It is an homage, a throwback to the swashbucklers of the pre-war era.

But Lucas’s influences do not end there. The silent films of the 1910s and 20s, the Japanese aesthetic of Kurosawa, and the French cinĂ©ma pur, or “pure cinema,” all contribute in large part to the unique style and often whimsical, if not confusing, assortment of film references and allusions made in the Star Wars films.  Lucas himself has often said that Star Wars are primarily silent films and that the dialog is more musical and thematic than it is necessary to the plot. Star Wars is visual filmmaking, which may sound obvious, but it takes the concept exponentially further than the majority of commercial cinema.

To claim master over this style is Lucas’s overriding love of symbolic storytelling. Symbols are everywhere in Star Wars. Some of these symbolic gestures are blatant, while others escape the notice of almost everyone who sees them, perhaps even the creator himself. But this is unimportant as the very nature of symbolism is subliminal. It adheres to a basic human understanding of events and the meanings of them. In the Star Wars saga, and particularly the prequels, Lucas exercised his toy-mongering CGI in an orgy of visual symbolism, not in an attempt to mask a lack of story, but to tell the story.

Visual Symbolism - Circles

“You and the Naboo form a symbiont circle. What happens to one of you will affect the other. You must understand this.” Obi-Wan Kenobi

I’m not going to waste time by discussing the colors of Coruscant’s sky or the black and white of the imperial color wheel and their bastard child, grey. These are easy, and anyone reading this far into a fanboy analysis of a fictional world has probably already figured them out. No, I want to get soggy and slough through the quagmire of highly debatable and wholly unverifiable symbolic meanings. I will start with circles.

Yes, circles. These geometric shapes have given the world the wheel and pi, and yet their greatest value is not in rolling or confusing middle school boys, but that of symbolism. Symbiotic circles to be exact. Star Wars presents us with the idea that all events and characters and places are related to one another, that “what happens to one of you will affect the other.”

In the very first shot of Episode I, we see the ships of the Trade Federation, or at least what we believe are the ships of the Trade Federation. The actual "ship" is just the ball in the center, the ring around the outside of the ball, we find out later, is a docking area for other ships. Why would Lucas do this? Well, aside from the interesting visual design, the ring on the outside of the droid control ship isn't a ring at all, or at least not completely. It is a broken circle. It is Star Wars' first bit of visual symbolism.

The representation of the Trade Federation with a broken circle makes more sense as we get to know more about them. In the film, they are presented as the embodiment of greed and rampant capitalism’s victory over compassion and common sense. They are themselves a symbol of a corrupt galaxy. Their ships, probably built at the hands of small Neimoidian children, are a symbol of a broken system—a galaxy that is not living in harmony, or balance, with itself. From the outset we see that the galaxy of Star Wars is not a happy place.

Nowhere is the circle theme more pronounced than it is in the Senate chamber. This spherical construction holds the entirety of the galactic representatives. In theory, a sphere has no top and no bottom. Every point is equidistant from the point opposite it. It is the shape of equality and wholeness.

What George is trying to tell us is that things that happen elsewhere are no more or less important than things that happen right next to us. We’re all in the same circle. Eventually what affects someone else will find its way around to us.

The circle motif continues as we venture into the Jedi Counsel chamber. Twelve Jedi Knights sit in a circle wherein each member has equal status not unlike Arthur’s Round Table. The Jedi by their nature and code are to be “protectors of peace and justice in the galaxy.” Their chivalrous nature is presented to the viewer from the opening of the film—Jedi do not fight, they negotiate; they do not attack, they defend; they follow the will of the force, they do not command it. Ideally, they are the noble sword monks who defend the galaxy and its people from corruption.

But there is another bit of symbolism that The Phantom Menace presents to show us the Jedi are not as connected with the rest of the galaxy as they think they are. Cloistered high in their literal ivory tower, the Jedi remain distant from the needs of the galaxy’s citizens.

When Queen Amidala decides to go to the capital to garner the support of the Senate, the Jedi Ambassadors are right in tow. When Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan return to Coruscant, however, the only information they seem to be interested in relaying to the council is of their mysterious attacker on Tatooine. Nothing is mentioned of the plight of the Naboo people, or the oppressive nature of the Trade Federation blockade. The Jedi are now more concerned with their own internal affairs and the threat a Sith return would present to their own powers than they are for the well-being of the people of Naboo. Even at the beginning of the Saga, we see that the "heroes" of Star Wars are not infallible.

The Jedi maintain a circle, but it is a circle of their making. They are not living in symbioses with the rest of the galaxy. They are above—gazing from their lofty towers of knowledge and wisdom, holding themselves aloof, secluded from the needs of the many to maintain the power of the few.

In essence, I would go so far as to say Star Wars is all about circles. The word itself is surely mentioned enough in the scripts, and its meaning is certainly large enough to merit that type of importance. The circles of father and son, master and apprentice, war and peace, life and death, hate and love, and compassion and dispassion are what the story of Star Wars is really all about. Space battles are just a really fun way to tell it.

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